- Close to half (45%) of college-educated single women say their relationship status is largely due to an inability to find someone who meets their expectations. Tweet This
- College-educated women are far more likely than those without a degree to say a partner’s political views, personal habits, and current financial situation are important considerations. Tweet This
- Half of college-educated women say that it would be impossible (21%) or very difficult (29%) to date someone who held a contrary opinion on the legality of abortion, vs. one-third of women without a degree. Tweet This
Few life decisions are more consequential than who we decide to partner up with. Yet in a previous era, Americans made these critical decisions very early in their lives. Today, Americans are waiting longer to pull the trigger on marriage and increasingly foregoing marriage altogether. This is due in large part to the fact that women are less economically dependent on men. Women also face far less societal or familial pressure to get married than they once did. These changes have transformed the dating landscape but may also have created a rift between women with a college education and those without in their partner preferences, priorities, and expectations.
The Educational Divide in Dating Expectations
For single women, education appears to have a profound influence on dating expectations, according to a new report from the Survey Center on American Life. Close to half (45%) of college-educated single women say their relationship status is largely due to an inability to find someone who meets their expectations. For single women without a college degree, only 28% report that this is a major reason for their lack of a partner or spouse. Of six different reasons single women give for why they are not dating or in a relationship, the inability to find partners who measure up was cited most often.
Women appear much more discerning than men when it comes to dating. However, there is a massive educational divide among women in their dating priorities. College-educated women are far more likely than those without a degree to say a partner’s political views, personal habits, and current financial situation are important considerations.
Of 10 different attributes measured in the figure below, a majority of college-educated women would consider nine of them to be liabilities in a potential partner. For the majority of women without a degree, only three—being unemployed, living with parents, and smoking—are dating labilities.
The largest education gaps in dating preferences among women are a potential partner’s educational background, views about vaccines, and views of Donald Trump. More than seven in 10 college-educated women say they would be less likely to date someone who supports Trump (74%) or is suspicious of vaccines (72%). A majority (54%) of women with a degree say they would be less likely to date someone without a college education. Far fewer women without a degree say they would be less inclined to date someone who supports Trump (42%), does not trust vaccines (34%), or did not go to college (12%).
Employment matters for both college-educated women and women without a degree. Eighty-nine percent of college-educated women and nearly three-quarters (74%) of women without a degree. The education divide is among the smallest on this issue of employment, which suggests that all women value having a partner who can contribute financially. Still, college-educated women are more likely to say being unemployed is a liability in a prospective partner.
One important exception to this pattern are views about feminism. Women without a college degree are much more likely than college-educated women to view feminism as a liability in a partner. Close to half (47%) of women without a degree say that they would be less likely to date a feminist, compared to 25% of college-educated women.
Abortion in Dating Decision-Making
In the wake of the Dobbs ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, women, especially younger and college-educated women, are much more concerned about the issue of abortion. For young women, no issue ranked as being more personally important to them as abortion.
Still, relatively few college-educated women in the survey say that abortion would be a definite dealbreaker for them, although many say it would make things quite difficult. Half of college-educated women say that it would be impossible (21%) or very difficult (29%) to date someone who held a contrary opinion on the legality of abortion. Only one-third of women without a degree say the same.
The Difference Education Makes in Dating
The most obvious explanation for why college-educated women appear to weigh so much additional criteria when it comes to dating is obvious—they can afford to be more selective. One of the key differences separating the lives of college-educated women from those without a degree is economic insecurity. Women with a college degree have a much greater degree of financial security and stability. They have more assets, less debt, and subsequently more options. A partner or spouse’s ability to contribute financially is important for all women, but it becomes especially important for women in less stable financial situations.
But it’s not only financial security and access to better economic opportunities that education affords; it is also greater autonomy. Women with resources do not often feel the same biological pressure when it comes to finding a partner and starting a family. Fertilization treatments, which can cost thousands of dollars, provide women with greater flexibility when it comes to making difficult decisions about when to start a family. For a growing number of women, these treatments provide the opportunity to start families completely independent of a partner or spouse.
Another reason college-educated women may have different requirements in mind is that for those who want to start families, their choice of partner can have a profound impact on their future career ambitions. Mothers pay a steep price in terms of their career earnings. Even as men have taken on a greater share of household responsibilities in two-parent households, it is hardly equal. Women still take on a disproportionate share of child care and domestic labor. It’s a reality that looms over the decisions that women make when deciding who to date.
Dating and relationship expectations are evolving for everyone. Highly educated and economically mobile young women increasingly assume dual roles as caretaker and provider, and they are increasingly expecting the same of their partners. As Washington Post columnist Christine Emba put it recently, everyone has dating dealbreakers, women just face less pressure today to make a deal at all.
Unfortunately, rising selectivity in dating and partner selection comes at a time when more men are falling behind. In his book, Of Boys and Men, Brookings scholar Richard Reeves argues that young women demonstrate a far greater “appetite for success” whether in academics or in their career aspirations. The result is more Americans, both men and women, going it alone.
Daniel A. Cox is the director and founder of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute.
Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.